Look, there's not a thing wrong with a basket of grouper fingers and fries after a long day at the beach.
But sometimes, all that salt air and sand inspires an appetite for more: Complex flavors and thoughtfully-sourced ingredients, prepared with creative finesse and presented by a staff knowledgeable in the art of service. And maybe a craft cocktail or two, not guzzled out of a Solo cup.
Fine dining hasn’t been Tybee Island’s strong suit in the past few years. Though Sundae Café continues to serve up its heralded fare, locals reminisce about the days of yore when upscale restaurants like Tango, Hunter House and George’s brought a certain culinary panache to the island.
Beach bon vivants can rejoice again with the advent of Fish Camp, open this month and already captivating palates. Brought to us by Tybee Island Social Club owners Kurtis Schumm and Sarah Lanier Schumm, Fish Camp fills a niche that’s been begging for a more polished presentation of our local fruits of the sea.
“We asked ourselves what Savannah needs, and we came up with an idea for fresh-off-the-boat, properly-plated seafood,” says Sarah.
Chances are that those lovingly-arranged dishes were caught that morning, often sourced from neighboring Bowie Seafood, Russo’s and directly from the Agnes Marie, a legacy shrimp boat docked at Lazaretto Creek that also trawls for flounder. Mountain trout fresh from the creeks of North Carolina and lobster sailed down the East Coast round out a menu full of just-caught delicacies that will never know the indignity of a plastic basket.
Deadpans Kurtis: “We do not have a fryer here.”
A modern Renaissance man who can wield saw, guitar and paintbrush with equal skill, Kurtis built the cedar awnings and added the deck himself to the secluded 1950’s bungalow that most recently housed Jitterbug Café. The original plan was for him to bring his formidable chef talents to the Fish Camp kitchen as well, though the logistics of running both restaurants proved tricky. (He still lends his kitchen chops at both places often enough.)
Fortunately, the Schumms found a chef who could execute their vision in Cameron Cheney, who wowed Midtown at B. Tillman when it first debuted last year. While he has happily ditched the formal white chef jacket for a T-shirt and backwards ball cap, Chef Cheney remains committed to his “Southern-infused French thing” that earned him a loyal, if disappointingly small, cadre of followers at B. Tillman.
“I’ve made a deliberate effort not to replicate the menu,” he promises, though at least one Fish Camp offering reflects his soft spot for spaetzle as a side.
No matter, Cheney clearly has culinary creativity to spare: The aforementioned trout arrived perfectly baked and stuffed with crunchy red pepper slaw atop a thick square of jalapeño corn bread, a generous dollop of tangy roasted pepper sauce underneath. Ahi tuna—so often egregiously overcooked—came with a perfect sear and a thick, pink middle, accompanied by orange-glazed carrots and butterbean purée, each flavor made even more heavenly by a creamy wasabi sauce.
As for the nightly special, Cheney’s preparation of cobia, its buttery texture enhanced by a beurre blanc and served on a bed of leeks, literally brought tears of joy to a grown man’s eyes.
Appetizer must-haves are the lobster tail—packed with a Bienville assortment of goodies—and the baked oysters, a bright take on the Rockefeller that features kale (so much more robust than spinach!) and bacon from Midwestern legend Nueske’s.
The standout soups (lobster bisque with truffle cream, anyone?) and salads will also be included in the forthcoming lunch menu. Don’t overlook Fish Camp’s land-based delights, such as the sweet slow burn of the Andouille sausage-apple-stuffed pierogi and a nice, fat ribeye from Hunter Cattle.
Catering to the expectation of fine service that comes with fine food is a well-trained team that includes couple Laura O’Leary-Meyers and Taylor Robertson, both veterans of the Athens foodie scene who respectively serve as bartender and sous chef. O’Leary-Meyers presides over a cocktail list that reads like a grown-up candy store, combining classics like an absinthe-laced Sazerac with the proprietary creations of the New Fashioned (maraschino cherries never tasted so good) and the Spicy Schummy Mary (bound to become a Sunday lunchtime legend.) The wine list is purposefully provincial, showcasing mostly domestic, free-spirited labels, including out-of-the-box whites like Monterey’s Ken Volk Malvasia and super-grapey Chronic Purple Paradise out of Paso Robles.
Set back behind the post office on North Campbell Avenue under the pines, Fish Camp’s aesthetic is a far tack from Social’s easy, breezy elegance. Inspired by the remote shacks of her youth where menfolk would escape for a week’s fishing, Sarah has designed a seductive space that’s part lodge, part lounge.
“Social is our raison d’être; we want it to feel like everyone’s beach house,” she explains, sipping ice water on one of the linen-covered bar stools.
“At Fish Camp, we wanted to do something higher end, something more intimate. We’ve kind of ended up creating an environment where we want to hang out.”
The mix of the modern and rustic certainly appears to be an extension of Sarah’s acclaimed personal style: Lotus leaf placemats are set with simple black and white napkins. A few of Kurtis’ sensuous paintings hang on the walls. Her aunt’s old piano—serendipitously rediscovered on Craigslist—is played by local musicians most evenings.
It’s unpretentious and uncluttered, though everywhere are the interior designer’s signature glamorous touches, from the vintage green high ball glasses to old books that serve as check presenters.
With five years as restaurateurs under their belts and an inherent savoir faire, the Schumms appear to have brought fine dining back to Tybee—and possibly taken it to a whole new level. The couple celebrated their second wedding anniversary in between closing on the building and opening Fish Camp’s doors in less than three months, a dizzying turnaround that barely fazed them.
“We love art, we love music, we love to bring people together,” says Sarah, squeezing Kurtis’ elbow as he walks back to the kitchen.
“Food is the perfect platform to showcase all of our passions.”
Fish Camp, 106 S. Campbell Ave., (912) 662-3474, closed Mondays, reservations recommended.
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